Homework is a key learning opportunity for students — it’s where they spend most of their time on your course out of class, and it’s typically the only place where they spend time on their own, puzzling out the ideas presented in lecture.
So, how do you create homework that helps bring students to a deeper understanding of the material, targeting their specific needs?
Some techniques are pedagogical — such as Just in Time Teaching, where you frequently quiz students on their understanding of the topics, adjusting your instruction and gaining deep insight into their common difficulties. This can help you properly target the homework to the class.
But some solutions could be technological. I’ve been really excited about ALEKS (Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces) since one of our chemistry instructors enthusiastically told me how much she likes it. ALEKS provides individualized learning through “adaptive questioning” — or, questions that change as you go along. If you’ve taken the computerized GRE, you know what this is like — if the questions start getting really easy, you know you’re in trouble, because that means it’s trying to adapt the questions to your level.
But unlike the GRE, ALEKS isn’t trying to assess student understanding to assign a grade or a score — rather, ALEKS offers targeted instruction to the student on the topics that he/she is ready for. For those learning theorists among you, those would be the topics in that student’s zone of proximal development. And what’s most interesting is that it doesn’t use multiple choice very much — it uses open-ended tools, such as input into graphs. The teacher gets a report indicating the students’ aptitude in a variety of topics.
Here is a very nice outline of ALEKS, complete with screenshots.
ALEKS can help both with placement and with learning — in learning mode, the student gets practice problems and explanations. Once the student has demonstrated mastery of the topic, then ALEKS moves on to new material. It seems that this would be very appropriate to use with the standards based grading that I wrote about in my last post.
Ways I’ve seen ALEKS used:
- By institutions, to place students in the appropriate course
- By homeschoolers, as an instructional tool
- By students, as a tutor
- By instructors, for homework and formative assessment
They have a variety of course offerings, many in K12, but in higher ed they have many different products in math (e.g., pre-algebra, trigonometry, and various prep courses), business, statistics for the behavioral sciences, and science (mainly chemistry, plus math prep for college physics). It’s not free — last I saw it cost $20 per student per month, though there are some bulk discounts. Though, as ALEKS points out, it’s cheaper than a human tutor, and does provide individualized feedback. I’m particularly happy to see that it’s research based, though I admit I’m not familiar with the theory that supports it, and I don’t see information on whether it’s research tested (i.e., does it do what it purports to do) rather than just based on reasonable theory — though this article suggests that they are doing good work in that regard.
For those of you needing a free solution — there is Diagnoser, which isn’t quite the same, but offers research-based testing to help teachers determine their students difficulties and misconceptions and offer suggestions on addressing those difficulties in class.